Disclaimer: This post was written in December 2014, but from observations and conversations with people, I realized a lot of it still stands true. That said, do feel free to skip it.
While waiting for a friend at a train station in San Francisco, an 85-year-old David Duran, a man of Mexican-origin waved at me, beckoning me to sit.
Ten minutes into the conversation, he asked me if I knew Steve Jobs. “Not personally, “I said.
“I did. And let me tell you, I never thought he’d amount to much. What would a skinny little fellow, who couldn’t throw away banana peels do anything in life?” he said.
Turns out David Duran, the person who I was speaking with, was a janitor at Homestead High, the school that Steve Jobs studied in.
Although Duran does not have an email ID, he says he knew Steve Jobs and his friend Wozniak quite well.
Welcome to Silicon Valley — the place where some part of technology inevitably makes its way into everyone’s life, more intimately than anywhere in the world.
The city that made ships for World War Two is now making products that most world leaders tweet with and take selfies on.
The state of California is in its third year drought (now fifth), in the midst of one of its ever worst spells, and yet, there is little evidence of that in the Bay Area.
All the software campuses are verdant green:The grass is genetically modified to consume very little water, said a spokesperson of one such campus in VMWare, an enterprise software maker headquartered in Palo Alto. Science before all else is the mantra.
For an outsider, the city seems like any other. But, for a startup reporter, the city is a wonderland. Walkways, pedestrian crossings and train stations are abuzz with startup tactics, hiring and venture talk.
“One startup told me I was good at algorithm, not coding. How messed up is that?” asked one aspiring techie to another, at a pedestrian crossing.
A cab driver, Richard (who did not want to disclose his last name) was friends with a venture capitalist, and one of the most well-informed persons I met, journalists included. The average salary of an engineer in the Valley is $156,518.
“That’s a lot of money you know,” he said.
But in no way does it mean that the city respects it. They Valley folks put knowledge above all else.
“People I know that run startups- yes they end up making money. Usually the desire is to not have to worry about money so that you can pursue more ideas,” said Paul Strong, CTO of VMWare. On more than one occasion I heard people- regular folk, — talk about high-net-worth engineers, not individuals.
In another instance, an ex-Googler spoke of how the “per-capita of ideas here is very high” in the Valley. Technology has seeped into their culture to the extent that even the diction seems slightly slanted towards it.
The former Googler Karolis Karalevicius, 29, now runs a co-working space called StartupHouse in the heart of the city.
“Any idea that you have, no matter how good or bad, will probably be shot down elsewhere in the world. Not here,” said Karalevicius. “Here, people with ideas are celebrated” he said.
That statement forms the bedrock of Silicon Valley’s success strategy: As a tech company, you need to get their hands as dirty as possible, as fast as possible.
“Not invented here is not an option in the world. Innovation is our meat and drink,” said Strong of VMWare.
Although the most disruptive companies in the world were born in Silicon Valley, it was conceived by immigrants. Elon Musk of Tesla, Sergey Brin of Google, Jan Koum of Whatsapp, Vinod Khosla of Sun Microsystems are a few examples.
And Karalevicius said the influx into the city has only increased, which is why his co-working space has started providing accommodation for the migrant founders, in addition to an office space.
The city, compulsively obsessed with fitness, organic products and technology, also has numerous art schools or a design center on every block.
What also fuels the extraordinary level of success is the readiness with which people are accepted and celebrated for who they are.
For instance, a person operating a complex machinery like lathe and wood cutters, would generally be referred to as a mechanic in other parts of the world. At TechShop, a maker-space, he/she is called a Dream Consultant, or a DC — one of the most important members of the maker spaces.
Karalevicius, who manages the co-working space is the “Jack of all trades”.
Inclusivity is also another feature the city seems to be working on. In addition to promoting women entrepreneurs, a movement is afoot to embrace the LGBT entrepreneurs as well. This year (ie in 2014), 500Startups started a $1 million syndicate to invest in LGBT-founder led companies in the next 12 months.
The Bay Area, the southern region of the city has a section called the Rainbow Street, where a majority of the houses have installed a flag post bearing the LGBT flag on their rooftops.
While all things seems picture perfect in the Valley, the fast changing technology scene and widening income gap, has rendered thousands homeless — to which, Silicon Valley is mostly oblivious to.
The rent rates in Bay Area have soared, and so have the number of homeless on the streets of San Francisco.
And old-timers like Richard, who thrived during the manufacturing era, frown upon what the city has turned into. “There is no manufacturing here. They only manufacture code.”
But winds of change are sweeping through the Valley. Mark Zuckerberg’s “break things” motto has become passe. Non-techies like designers, artists, mechanics who were once silent spectators are all “making things” and getting recognized.
And four-year-old TechShop, the same place where credit card reader Square was prototyped, is one of the companies riding this wave.
With ten Techshop outlets set up at 10 different locations across United States (back then), and large companies like Google also setting up maker spaces, the software capital is now on a revival path to bring some aspect of the “Silicon” back in the Valley.
Looks like Richard may find a reason to smile after all.
PS: I published this first on LinkedIn.